Amtrak funding: Is Congress taking us for a ride?


Now that gas prices have topped $4 per gallon, Congress finally seems ready to give Amtrak a reliable future. But should they? Is city-to-city passenger rail travel relevant to today’s Americans?

Last year, Amtrak ridership topped 25.8 million, a 12 percent increase, with $1.5 billion in passenger revenue.

I guess that means a few people think rail travel is relevant, but President Bush doesn’t agree. He tried to put Amtrak out of business a year ago and is prepared to veto new Amtrak funding legislation. A battle is brewing in Washington, and Congress, which appears ready to pump almost $15 billion into Amtrak, is prepared to override the veto.

Relative to other modes of transportation, train travel is “green.” According to a study by the Sightline Institute, the average carbon dioxide emitted per passenger-mile from a train is 0.23 pounds. That compares to 1.0 for airplanes and 1.2 for automobiles. What’s more, the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that in 2005 the energy consumption per passenger-mile of trains was 2,100 BTUs, 3,200 for airplanes and 3,500 for cars, despite the fact that Amtrak still uses mostly diesel technology outside the Northeast Corridor.

I’m a regular on Amtrak from Philadelphia to New York, Boston and Washington. When you add up the time waiting in an airport, waiting on the runway, claiming luggage and traveling from center city to the airport, Amtrak can get me to these cities in about the same or less time than the airlines.

And imagine how much quicker that would be if Acela, which averages 72 mph between Washington and Boston, could zip along as fast as France’s TGV, which typically travels at 200 mph.

Acela can’t travel consistently at its top commercial-use speed of 150 mph because most of the track it uses can’t handle it. It can only achieve that speed on two segments of track totaling a whopping 18 miles on a stretch between Providence and Boston.

Are our legislators truly attempting to make Amtrak a viable travel alternative? Are they giving it enough money, or a financial Band Aid?

The Baltimore Sun points out that the 19th Century train tunnels under Baltimore Harbor need at least $1 billion alone to bring them up to today’s standards. That’s just one of many choke points at Amtrak needing substantive, expensive work. Amtrak inherited an aging, neglected patchwork of rail systems from bankrupt railroads, and has never been adequately funded to bring the system up to European standards, to which it is constantly compared by a whinging Bush Administration.

Thrown into the House bill is a requirement for the Department of Transportation to seek proposals from private companies to create a high-speed service that would take travelers from Washington to New York in two hours or less.

The problem is their proposal would take away Amtrak’s most valuable asset, Acela. I believe the proposal is the Republican’s last ditch effort to pick apart Amtrak into irretrievable failure. Acela accounts for 3.1 million riders, 12 percent of total ridership and 26 percent of Amtrak’s total passenger revenue.

House Republicans led by John Mica say the US must catch up with European and Asian high-speed rail travel. Years ago, former Amtrak president David Gunn told Congress bluntly, “If you really want a super-zippy train from Washington to New York, you have to build another railroad.” It looks like the Republicans, who shoved him out the door, are finally listening.

Instead of funding Amtrak to do its job, they are attempting to create a new inefficient piecemeal rail operation.

Washington needs to take a hard look at creating a viable national railroad that is properly funded. Other developed nations are light years ahead of us while our government continues to bicker over funding a solution that is, in the long run, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

  • Jen

    I can’t believe Amtrak’s existence is still being debated. Europe and Japan have gas prices much higher than the US’…and they both have extensive, efficient rail systems. US gas prices are soaring into unprecedented territory and our rail system is a laughingstock. Ever since I worked for a transportation consultant (1997!), I’ve had a tremendous appreciation for rail travel and I find it a shame that our system isn’t up to par with other parts of the world. Is Amtrak relevant to the US? Why ISN’T it?

  • Hapgood

    City-to-city passenger rail travel relevant to some of today’s Americans. For the East Coast routes you mention, it should supplant airlines as the most efficient and effective form of passenger travel. But passenger rail (at least the conventional kind) is a more questionable proposition for the rest of the country.

    I live in Los Angeles. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner provides reasonably convenient service to Santa Barbara and San Diego. A train trip to either place should be the first vacation choice for all economically and ecologically responsible Angelinos who have exhausted the numerous vacation possibilities of their home town. The only problem is that for many people in Southern California, getting to Union Station (in “downtown” Los Angeles) can take nearly as long as getting to Santa Barbara or San Diego; and a taxi or shuttle would probably cost more than the train ticket.

    A look at the other trains available from Los Angeles reveals why passenger rail has questionable value in a country that spans a continent. The Coast Starlight takes a day and a half to get to Seattle (at least officially– it can be delayed up to 14 hours). The Sunset Limited takes two days to get to New Orleans (again, its on-time record is dismal). And the Southwest Chief takes not quite two days to get to Chicago. Business travelers certainly don’t have that kind of time to get to meetings. And workers who are extremely lucky if they’re allowed to take their full two weeks of vacation would most likely be unwilling to spend such a large part of their extremely precious days off on a train (especially if they have to allow an extra day for delays in getting home).

    Passenger trains are surely a very good transportation option in places with a high population density, such as the Northeast or Southern California (or Europe), where the travel time is comparable to flying. But absent something like the TGV or bullet train, they’re useless for cross-country trips that require multiple days and overnights. They may may have been great back in the day when the country moved to a slower pace and people had no choice. But Amtrak’s long-distance routes seem usable only for people who have lots of time and can afford to arrive at their destination when the train gets there rather than at any particular time. That may apply to retirees, but certainly not to anyone else.

  • Ned

    Hapgood, many of your comments are right on the money. I agree that the East Coast is especially well situated for train travel. I think the West Coast, from San Diego right up to Seattle is equally well suited to train travel. If you’re trying to directly compare train and plane travel with regard to travel time, I think in the future the maximum route length cutoff would be about 6 hours for a 200mph TGV train.

    A TGV traveling between San Diego and Seattle, a distance of 1,062 miles should make the trip in about 5.5 hours or so. It would take a lot of bucks to build it, but over the long haul I think it makes sense. As far as Union Station, LA goes, a new station location makes sense. Union Station’s location belongs to another time. In fact, the precise layout of any route would have to be carefully planned, including building stations which no one has yet considered.

    Amtrak has a significant on time problem at this point. In my opinion, that problem mostly stems from the fact that Amtrak owns less than 1,000 of the 21,000 miles of track on which it travels. Most of that track is owned by freight rail companies and they get priority on their tracks, often delaying Amtrak trains interminably. Part of what will be necessary for TGV travel will be for Amtrak to own the TGV trackage.

    While I’m advocating funding Amtrak so it can finally become a viable national railroad, I’m not advocating a railroad that crisscrosses the nation, serving communities as a replacement for air transportation. Not only isn’t that going to happen, it wouldn’t make sense. I travel between the coasts almost every other month, and even a train travel advocate like me will continue to fly those 2,400 miles.

    While there are some wonderful routes crossing huge swaths of the country, such as the Empire Builder which goes from Chicago – St. Paul – Portland/Seattle, that’s a “sightseeing route,” not really a “transportation route.” By the way, it’s a fabulous “sightseeing route.” Europe doesn’t have “long” distance routes which compete directly with plane travel either. You’re right about true long distance train travel. The days of the Orient Express as “transportation” are gone.

    I’m advocating an Amtrak which sets up train travel between carefully selected city pairs. There are many routes like Philadelphia – New York, or Washington – New York which would be as highly successful as those routes are already, running at close to capacity.

    I’m advocating an Amtrak which uses TGV and faster trains, which are coming in the future, for specific routes of multiple cities. The slow Acela shows the tremendous potential of the TGV. Already, Philadelphia to Boston via Acela is better than any airline from Philadelphia to Boston, in my opinion, and Acela runs at less than half the speed of a TGV. A TGV should make that 273 mile trip in less than an hour and a half. Can you imagine that? Take a look at this 2001 map of proposed high speed routes across the nation: This shows many potential TGV routes which could be highly successful alternatives to air travel. These routes could be run by multiple companies and authorities, but I believe there is a significant economy of scale of which we can take advantage, with a single entity national railroad.

    Thanks very much for your comment Hapgood. If you’re not a regular here at Tripso, I hope you will be. I also invite you to participate in our forum, Talking Traveler. I know we would welcome your participation in our discussions there.

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  • Roger

    Well, in my view, it’s a matter of political will. We are experiencing some interesting times in the United States. We are finally waking up and realizing that our infrastructure: from transportation to education, is not as sound as we thought. With elections coming up and with energy a hot issue, change might just be on the way, and we have to take advantage of this window of opportunity by appealing to Congress as heavily as we can to get them to rethink nation-wide, mass transportation policy.

    With that said, air travel has become so exhausting and quite pricey, too. The Miami to Altanta run that used to cost roughly $140 on the “premium” airlines are now costing between $245 – $300! The low cost airlines like Jet Blue and so on used to be so good with service and price, but lately, the quality of service and the ticket prices have much to be desired. Then, there is the option of taking the 14-hour drive, but with gas prices the way they are, that is becoming a nightmare even with the most fuel-efficient car.

    Train service, then, is the way to go because frankly, I don’t see any other way.

    Oh, I forgot to mention, too, that many highways are funded through tax revenues garnered through gas prices. Motorists are filling up less and less, so there has been a huge decrease in tax revenues for highway funding, which means less lighting and signage, less road-side assitance and more and more strips of highways in disrepair. That makes driving less attractive to me.

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